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Thinking Torah

Rav Alex Israel -



Parashat Vayelech.
Gradual Departure


Parashat Vayelech is a phenomenal parsha. It is an incredible study in psychology and leadership. Moshe, the great leader who has lead Bnei Yisrael for forty years, is leaving the scene. Rarely has a leader who prepared so thoroughly for his successor. How did this careful transition, this meticulous process of taking Israel to the next stage, take place? 




In essence, Sefer Devarim - as a whole - is one type of preparation, and this takes shape in several dimensions. First, Sefer Devarim is there to inspire the nation to continued observance of Torah and adherence to God's way of life. It encourages and warns, learning from history to guide future events. Second, Sefer Devarim aims to inform the nation of their Laws and obligations. It lists a vast number of Mitzvot which shape the Jewish Body Politic to become a nation who live differently, as they are shaped by God's Law. Lastly, Moshe has the people engage in a covenant, a commitment ceremony, a partnership or treaty with God, so that the Nation take to heart the fact that they are engaged in a binding contractual relationship with God. That is the Book of Devarim.




But let us say that Parashat Vayelech takes things to a new stage. Look at what happens here. First, let us begin with the opening phrase: "Vayelech Moshe." Why does Moshe go? To where does he go?[1] In last weeks parsha, Moshe had the entire nation assembled, Man woman and child! Why could he not have said everything then?


"Moshe went from the Camp of Levi to the Camp of the Israelites to honour them, as one who wishes to depart from his friend goes to him to receive his permission to leave." (Ramban)


"Moshe went to each tribe individually to inform them of his impending death, so that they not be afraid." (Ibn Ezra)


Moshe had the means of assembling the nation but he didn't want to. He needed to reassure the nation, to address their insecurities and worries. Look at the content of the parsha, and you will see how it is all geared at a smooth sense of continuity:


1-6 : Moshe reassures the people that in his absence God will lead them to a success

7-8: Moshe reassures Joshua that he will have success (with the help of God) 

9:     Moshe gives a Sefer Torah to the Tribe of Levi

10-13:      The Mitzva of Hakhel - a public reading of Torah (re-enactment of Mt. Sinai? - the Yom HaKAHAL - see Devarim 4:10, 9:10, 10:4, 18:6)

14:           God allows Joshua to JOIN Moshe in the Tent of Meeting (Thus emphasising Joshua's role as successor.)

15-23       God tells Moshe to write a Shira (Song) to guide the people in understanding future rebellion and punishment

24-30       God gives the Sefer Torah to the Levites for safekeeping in the Mishkan, and informs the people of the song that predicts the waywardness of the future.


The parsha begins with Moshe reassuring the nation that they will enter the Promised Land, that they can be successful. He even instructs them to enact a mass commitment ceremony at regular intervals in order to reconnect with Torah and "Fear of God."


But the parsha ends with God warning that the future will NOT be so successful. Why is this important? I think it is clear! With all Moshe's encouragement, the nation, when it experiences troubles, invasion, destruction, in the future, will think that God has abandoned them, has severed the covenant with them, has rejected Israel outright. It is imperative that Moshe warn them, and teach them "a song" to be remembered and recalled. That song - Shirat HaAzinu - stresses that even if we are punished, Israel will never be rejected. Despite future persecutions and horrors, Israel must know that this was predicted from the start. It is not an abrogation of the God-Israel relationship, but rather an in-built hazard of our connection with God; If we are disloyal, there are consequences.


So this entire parsha readies the nation for the next stage, for the advent of Moshe's departure. Yeshoshua waits in the sidelines, being given full backing by God and Moshe, not yet the leader but standing and waiting to take the reins.




But the opening pesukim represent the most delicate expressions of Moshe departing from his nation. He uses a few phrases


I am now One-Hundred and twenty years old,

I can no longer go out and come in,

And God has said to me, ‘You shall not go across the Jordan.’

The Lord Himself will cross over before you;

He will wipe out those nations from before your path, and you shall dispossess them

Joshua is the one who shall cross over before you

      as the Lord has spoken.” (30:2-5)


This combination of phraseology is elegant and brilliant. I cannot cross the Jordan, but “God Himself will cross over before you,” but, in addition, “Joshua is the one who will cross over before you.”


Who is really leading  them? Moshe deliberately expresses the notion that BOTH God and Joshua will be at the helm. For those who need to know that God is leading them, they have God. For the people who need a flesh and blood leader, Joshua will be there.




I cannot go out or in: referring to war i.e. I cannot lead you in war… even were I to remain alive, I wouldn’t have the ability to lead you in battle. (Ibn Ezra)


I cannot go out or in: Could it be that Moshe’ was weak? – The text tells us (three chapters ahead - 34:7) “His eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated” but rather: “And God has said to me, ‘You shall not go across the Jordan.’ – I am not allowed” (Rashi)


I am One Hundred and twenty years old : To console them, he said: I am old and you have no use for me) …even though Moshe had full strength, he said this to calm them. (Ramban)


Is Moshe healthy or not? Is the restriction to his going in to the Land a function of his ill health, or God’s restriction? Is the key to the land the choice of national leader or the fact that “God is going before you, He will destroy these nations?”


The opening lines are unclear in this regard and I believe they are deliberately unclear. They are the way of someone who is consoling, alleviating fears. They are a mixture of sentiments that are not necessarily all consistent but are designed to relieve a troubled mind, to calm worries and to avoid panic.


Moshe yet again, in the parsha demonstrates his unique ability to lead in a masterful and sensitive manner.


Shabbat Shalom.






Question to think about:

Why does Moshe TWICE address Yehoshua with “Chazak VeEmatz.” Once in passuk 7 and AGAIN in passuk 23. What is the difference between the two?




[1] Sephorno suggests that Vayelech does not mean physical transition but rather a awakening to do something, a mobilization of sorts.

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